Pros: The choreography was a highlight.
Cons: Some of the dialogue in the early scenes had too much of the panto about it.
As audiences go, my offspring and I were a tough gig. Irritable after a long car journey, hungry, having been denied our lunch by the south east London traffic, and tired, after a not-very-much-sleepover. By the time we entered the Greenwich Theatre, we were all looking forward to an hour or so of not having to listen to each other, at all. I am happy to report that Yeh Shen delivered very much more than just family respite. It is a charming, lively show with loads of different ingredients, plenty of humour and a good pace.
Yeh Shen lives a life of servitude with her wicked stepmother and half-sister, in a cave in southern China. When the evil twosome get done up in their finery, and leave for the Spring Festival poor, sweet Yeh Shen is left alone in the cave…until a friendly spirit arrives. Yes, it’s the Chinese Cinderella, and while many of the elements are familiar, there are also distinct differences from the European version of the story. This version was, in parts, much darker than the one we are used to. Yeh Shen’s only friend is a fish. On discovering this, her stepmother takes her cat to kill the fish. When she then drops the dead fish into the frying pan, in front of Yeh Shen, there was a collective gulp from the parents in the audience. Nor was there much woolly liberalism on show here. It wasn’t enough for Yeh Shen to get the guy and the last laugh, the evil twosome also had to be seen to be punished. Whilst the stepmother’s punishment was brutal and decisive, her daughters’ was more perverse, involving a genuinely scary, sadistic foot-fetishist. That said, the fact that Yeh Shen marries a man she has actually got to know, rather than a dishy aristocrat encountered fleetingly at a ball, was pleasing to this woolly liberal.
Although the actors all take multiple roles, the storytelling is very clear, easy to follow and engaging. The story is told in a stylised, non-naturalistic way that combines puppetry, rapid costume changes, dance and a panto-style portrayal of good and evil, but for me, it is the dancing that really brings the show to life. It is simple and beautiful, often witty and always integral to the story. The fan dance is distinctly Chinese, but also entirely recognisable to any lover of Austen, with brash girls and ambitious mothers jockeying for position. Live music is provided by Joanna Zenghui Qiu who sings and plays an impressive array of traditional instruments.
The set is simple, serving variously as the family cave, the village square, a royal palace and a yurt. But it, together with the script and music, evokes a very strong sense of place. When the village elder visits the cave, he can barely breathe after climbing the mountain. The handsome stranger has come from ‘the north’, a place that we are given to understand is slightly alien, with exotic dances and different ways of living. Nothing is laboured, but there are subtle insights into a very different culture, era, terrain and way of living. There is also a pertinent message about the fact that stories we assume are our own often turn out to be universal and open to multiple interpretations.
After the pain of getting to the theatre, I was very much hoping that we would be entertained. We were. But I left with the satisfying feeling that we had also, all of us, been surreptitiously enlightened.
Director: Kumiko Mendl
Original music & arrangements: Joanna Zenghui Qiu
Producers: Yellow Earth and Polka Theatre
Designer: Claire Lyth
Choreographer: Sinman Yue
Booking until: This show has now ended its run at Greenwich Theatre and is touring. For more information visit: http://www.yellowearth.org/site/news-item/yeh_shen_the_worlds_first_cinderella_story_from_china/